Picks and Pans Review: Happy Days: My Mother, My Father, My Sister & Me

updated 12/04/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/04/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Shana Alexander

Journalist and social commentator Shana Alexander set out to write a book about her parents, the songwriter Milton Ager ("Happy Days Are Here Again") and Variety columnist Cecelia Ager, both media stars of their heyday, which was the martini-driven Manhattan of the '30s and '40s. She ended up writing a moving autobiography of a life damaged by the chilly Cecelia's inability to love her and her sister Laurel, and her beloved father's inability to help.

Moving from one residence hotel to another, they lived, Alexander writes, "rented lives as a fake mother, a paper-cutout father, and their two windup toy children." Grasping for affection, she embarks upon adulthood as "a girl who goes out the door every morning with an empty leash looking for underdogs."

Finding them, she marries and divorces twice. Unable to conceive but longing to be a mother—largely, she realizes, in order to rewrite her own life script by having and loving many children—she haunts infertility specialists, to no avail. Thus preoccupied, she fails to notice that she's having a dazzling career as a columnist for Life magazine and later as a commentator for 60 Minutes.

Well-crafted and unrelentingly frank, this book is engaging as a history of mid-century American pop culture, as a scrapbook of some splendid entertainment writing achieved by both Alexander and her mother and as a chronicle of one family's dysfunction and its ripple effect through several generations. While intensely personal, it has lessons, revelations and resounding notes for anyone who has ever been a mother or a daughter. (Doubleday, $27.50)

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